Robert M Shrum: You Ask The Questions

Democratic political consultant answers your questions, such as do you think you bear responsibility for eight years of George Bush?
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The Independent Online

What do you make of Obama's choice for Vice-President? Who would you have picked?

Lesley Eales, Birmingham

Biden is a great choice. He has deep foreign policy experience and a genuine capacity to connect with blue-collar voters. He's originally from the coal region of Scranton, Pennsylvania. And he is a terrific debater, likely to beat his Republican counterpart in the vice-presidential debate. Joe Lieberman was routed in 2000; John Edwards barely held his own in 2004 – and that hurt. Biden will also vigorously prosecute the case against the Republican nominee, another area where Lieberman and Edwards failed.

The Democrats should be walking this election – but the latest polls show McCain sneaking into the lead. Why?

Jennifer Ensworthy, Neath, West Glamorgan

Most polls show Obama leading. I suspect this election will be a lot like 1980, when the Reagan-Carter contest looked close, but Reagan pulled away at the end. The fundamentals favour the Democrats, and an Obama victory in the debates would seal the deal. One caveat: race will cost Obama some votes, just as Kennedy's Catholicism cost him some votes in 1960.

Would Obama be doing better or worse if you were running his campaign? And what changes would you make?

Mark Shepherd, Acton

In the primaries he could hardly have done better. The folks running his campaign, like David Axelrod, his chief strategist, have remarkable discipline and a keen strategic sense. Most of the carping comes from Democrats who wish they were in charge or their candidate had won.

Hillary's name will be placed in nomination at the convention. Will this be healing or divisive?

Gareth Hoby, Bodmin, Cornwall

It can be a healing moment, depending on what she and President Clinton say and mean. They can't just utter the words; they have to convey a real sense that they are 100 per cent for Obama. The Obama campaign has gone out of its way to give them their moment in the spotlight at the convention. I expect them to rise to that standard and the party to emerge unified and strong.

Were you dismayed by Bill Clinton's dreadful behaviour during the campaign?

Daniel Chan, Chandlers Ford, Hampshire

Not as dismayed as Hillary was.

Will Hillary ever be president?

Dean Washington, Devizes, Wiltshire

Reagan ran three times before he was elected at 69. Hillary will be 69 in 2016, when Obama's second term finishes.

In the last election, one UK newspaper had its readers write letters to Ohioans begging them to vote for Kerry. Is there anything more productive that foreigners can do this time around?

Nikki Alderton, York, Yorkshire

Given my position in the Kerry campaign, I appreciate the sentiment, but wish the letters hadn't been written. I understand how citizens in other countries feel. The selection of the US president profoundly affects their lives, too, but they have no say in the matter. Except in one sense: this year, Americans are deeply concerned about the nation's depressed standing in the world. No one is trying now to rename French fries – or as you call them, chips – "freedom fries". That juvenile period in American politics has passed.

Both candidates for the presidency have tried to emphasise that they want a "new" politics. Are both sides now reverting to the same old mudslinging?

Tania Smith, Liverpool

McCain, who has adopted virtually all of Bush's policies – even the ones he previously opposed, has decided his only alternative is to attack Obama personally. I don't think it will work; attitudes are very different than they were in 2004, when Bush's approval was more than twice as high and the Republicans could eke out a narrow victory by consolidating their base with a campaign on social issues like abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

What do you most envy about British politics? What do you least?

Joe Golding, Scarborough, North Yorkshire

Least envy: policies almost invariably seem to be judged not on the merits, but on the basis of politics. At least outside the Bush years, we in the US have seen some major bipartisan progress. In Britain, what's called an all-party consensus appears elusive on virtually every issue. Most envy: the quality of progressive leadership, from the creation of the NHS to the commitment to abolish child poverty. In the US, we're not even trying. Today, I admire Gordon Brown who, despite a tough year and a global downturn that inevitably affects Britain, has the record and resolve to see the economy through and build a country with greater economic fairness.

Do you respect Karl Rove?

Sara Johal, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

The 2000 race was stolen, and the next time George Bush had the worst showing of a re-elected incumbent president in American history. But he was inaugurated, if not elected, and then in 2004, Rove executed the strategy of appealing to fear and consolidating the base that just got Bush by. That strategy fell apart in the 2006 elections – and it will be recycled by McCain and repudiated by the voters this year.

Who are the greatest campaigners in United States history?

Matthew Hope, Lairg, Sutherland

Presidential nominees didn't really campaign before the end of the 19th century; they met delegations on their front porch. The greatest campaigners since then: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon deserves a dishonourable mention: he was crafty if not appealing, and he managed a comeback that seemed impossible, and then a landslide re-election with tactics that were ugly, deceptive, and ultimately illegal.

What was your biggest political mistake? And what was your proudest moment?

Tessa Downs, Oxford

I should have insisted that we respond to the swift boat liars who attacked Kerry the moment they climbed out of the slime. In part, we didn't because we agreed to take federal funding for the general election, which was also a mistake. At least I opposed that one. Proudest moment: Gore's recovery from a 12- to 15-point deficit in the summer to win the 2000 election – a victory that was lost to the butterfly ballot and the hanging chads in Florida, to a Supreme Court that acted like a collection of political hacks and by fiat refused to let every ballot be counted. I'm also proud of John Kerry's commanding performance in the 2004 debates with Bush. Maybe he just needed to score a few more points to get a few more votes in Ohio.

Would you give up your other victories to have gotten one Democratic president elected?

Chris Wark, Bury, Greater Manchester

It's hubris to think that consultants get presidents elected. They can play an important part. In terms of tradeoffs, let me offer one example. I certainly would not have given up Ted Kennedy's come-from-behind Senate re-election against Mitt Romney in 1994. Kennedy, perhaps the greatest of US Senators, has brought more progressive change than many presidents have done.

Do you think you bear any responsibility for eight years of Bush?

Danielle Lowe, Exeter, Devon

I voted for Gore, worked for Gore, and he won. I think it's disgraceful that Bush ever got to sneak into office.

You once worked for John Edwards, and you were critical of him in your memoir. Were you surprised by the events that led to his fall from grace?

Jane Fairris, Thetford, Norfolk

I was surprised by the scandal, but not by his tendency to play fast and loose with the truth.

Americans always seem very polite to their leaders. Do you ever wish your press was as rude to politicians as the British are?

Kevin Tilbury, Wrexham, Clwyd

We get plenty of rudeness and plenty of smears in the paid television advertising. The press should have been tougher on Bush early on – not by being rude, but by insistently asking hard questions and demanding answers.

I want to go into politics. What would be the best book to read as preparation?

Liz Brown, Great Malvern, Worcestershire

So many books, so little time. I do admire your desire to go into politics; it can be, and more often than we admit is, an honourable endeavour that can achieve great ends. Think of what the NHS means to people in Britain. From an American perspective, one classic book is Theodore H White's The Making of the President, 1960. It invented a whole new genre of political journalism designed to go behind the scenes and reveal what actually happened.